On one of the online forums I frequent, someone posted a link to an article on literary vs commercial fiction. This, of course, sparked a debate over what is and isn’t literary fiction and why the classifications even exist. Given that I, too, have struggled with this distinction (I class my fiction as ‘crossover’ or ‘literary-commercial’), I thought I’d wade in with my thoughts on this debate to kick off my new, monthly, debates posts.
So what is the difference between the two? The most common distinction I’ve found in my research was ‘character-led’ (literary) vs ‘plot-driven’ (commercial). What a load of [insert expletive to your liking here]. So, by this definition, books like ‘To Kill A Mockingbird’, ‘Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland’, ‘Huckleberry Finn’ and ‘Treasure Island’ are all commercial fiction, while a lot of romance novels are literary fiction. “Ah,” I hear the literary snobs say, “but the first are more character-led than plot-driven” (cue hours-long debates) “and the latter are GENRE fiction.” When I point out that this makes ‘Pride and Prejudice’ genre fiction, all hell breaks loose.
Which normally brings us to the next common distinction: ’emphasis on use of language’ (literary) vs ‘no emphasis’ (commercial). By this definition, Ian Rankin’s ‘Knots and Crosses’ (that’s Rebus #1 to most of the world’s readers) and Gillian Flynn’s ‘Gone Girl’ are literary fiction. This is normally the point those that love the existence of a literary-commercial divide normally grow pale and start spluttering, because we all know that books that are hugely successful across the population couldn’t possibly be literary.
So maybe we’re basing these on success? Does this mean if a book is beautifully written and unsuccessful it’s literary fiction? This would, of course, make ‘The Miniaturist’ commercial fiction (more spluttering here).
There’s always the idea of using structure in a new way (literary) vs not (commercial). Thus anything by Austen, Zadie Smith etc are clearly commercial, while crime like Keith Nixon’s ‘The Corpse Role‘, Mike Craven’s ‘Assume Nothing, Believe Nobody, Challenge Everything‘ and BA Morton’s ‘Bedlam‘ are all literary fiction (cue fainting here).
Next, we have the one that set off a few of my fellow book lovers the other day, Annie Neugebauer‘s definition (also quoted in previous article): “The aim of commercial fiction is entertainment” while “the aim of literary fiction is art”. This, of course, classes the likes of ‘On The Road’ and anything by PG Wodehouse as commercial fiction, while any poorly-edited, self-published first draft (the rarity that gives self-publishing the bad name it doesn’t deserve) is clearly literary fiction.
Some argue it’s about pace – long and slow (literary) vs short and pacy (commercial). So, of course, ‘A Song of Ice and Fire’ (‘Game of Thrones’ to the TV addicts) and ‘The Lord of the Rings’ are literary – they certainly work with language and fresh perspectives, although they are obviously also entertainment, successful and plot-driven…
In a similar vein, I gave up trying to class my book as literary or commercial: it plays with language and structure and is both character-led and plot-driven, while also being pacy and fairly light in the manner in which it deals with some tough and controversial issues.
All of the above served to bring me to the conclusion that the whole ‘literary or commercial?’ is a differentiator that, like VHS vs Betamax (that’s the pre-DVD (which is pre-online-streaming) technology to you youngsters), once had its uses but has now run its course. Thoughts?
Rosie Amber said:
Far too complicated to think about, if I think a book is written well, draws me into the storyline, gives me empathy with the characters, get me lost from my daily life for a few hours or teaches me something new, then it counts as a good book to me.
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I must admit that I don’t even think about it, until I see debates such as the one you refer to here.I’d rather think about which book I’m going to read next …. and cake!
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Agreed – cake is far more important than a literary or commercial classification!
Thank you for a thought provoking post on the topic. There are some clear cases of commercial and literary fiction , such as The Goldfinch and 50 Shades, although both have commercial success. Nevertheless, most novels hover in between, aiming to produce well written fiction which is also appealing to the majority of the reading population.
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Lisa Scullard said:
Totally agree that the mass debates over-simplify the definition. This is what I was taught constitutes literary fiction, recalled in vivid memory of how much I loathed the subject at school – https://lisascullard.wordpress.com/2014/08/06/tutorial-how-to-write-literary-fiction/
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